Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script magazine and a screenwriter, having written the narrative feature adaptation as well as the 10-hr limited series of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which was honored in the Top 25 Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition, CS Expo Finalist, the Second Round of Sundance Episodic Lab, and as a PAGE Awards TV Drama Finalist. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.
Do you have the talent and mindset to become a professional screenwriter?
There are two writers inside you, battling each other. One who believes you will succeed; the other who has lost faith. I am of the belief that whichever side you nurture most will win.
Your perception is your reality.
Look, I’m not trying to tell you to stick on a pair of rose-colored glasses and pretend you’re going to ride a unicorn through the velvet ropes that surround Hollywood. What I am saying is if you believe it’s impossible to break in, then it is impossible to break in.
You have to believe in miracles.
Yeah, I hear ya. It’s hard. I feel the pain a lot of days. When I feel like I’m losing faith, I go back to my roots and pull up the Serenity Prayer. No, you don’t have to be religious to appreciate its message.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Accept what you cannot change.
I’m going to spend the most time on this, because it’s critical to understand what you’re up against, so you can decide if the risk is worth the reward.
You cannot change how the industry works. There are hierarchies in place, executives afraid to say “yes” to an unproven writer, and A-list writers who seem to get all the gigs. Are you as good of a writer as they are? Maybe. But the odds of an unproduced writer being able to convince an exec of that are pretty slim. Even pro writers struggle to stay relevant.
Success is not easy for any artist.
There are so many ways our writing gets evaluated in this business – screenwriting contests, notes from executives, scores on The Black List, etc. What do all these “evaluations” boil down to? Your work is being rated by a reader’s perception of your storytelling ability and the potential of your story’s hook putting an audience in the seats of a movie theatre.
Will people open their wallets to see your movie?
Let’s talk about readers – the real gatekeepers.
One of the most dysfunctional aspects of this industry is getting past the reader. Before I go further, let me state, there are many extremely talented readers out there who have the monumental task of reading dozens of scripts a week for a minuscule amount of pay and are grossly disrespected and undervalued. Unfortunately, they get overshadowed by the vast majority of ill-prepared and unqualified readers. Many are interns who have zero interest in reading or are afraid to recommend a script to their bosses because it might end up being the next box-office bomb. Others are people looking for a side job who quickly buzz through scripts to get the mere $25 owed them, churning out cookie-cutter coverage.
The quality of the reader who happens to pick up your script is beyond your control.
I need a time-out for a mini rant here…
Seriously. It’s abhorrent what they pay readers while putting them in charge of finding the next Oscar-winning script that will make a production company or studio millions of dollars. If I ran Hollywood, the reader would be treated like a god. I would want the most qualified and motivated person at the helm for they are the first line in the battle of sorting through thousands of shit scripts to find the diamond in the rough. They are the treasure hunters and need to be appreciated for diving into battle each day, slugging through a slush pile of vomit, holding out hope glory lies within it.
Hiring great readers is just as important as finding great writers!
But alas… we can’t change how Hollywood works.
There are tons of articles out there on how to get past the reader with tips that are totally in your control, like the quality of your writing, proper formatting, etc. But you cannot change the fact that you often have readers who are unmotivated when your script comes across their desk. Or perhaps your romantic comedy script gets read by a contest reader whose partner just cheated on her and her heart hasn’t healed enough to stomach rooting for a happy ending.
Evaluating a script is subjective. Everyone’s taste is different.
For example, this year, I’ve had the same TV drama pilot make the Top 10 PAGE Awards finalist as well as the second round at Sundance Episodic Lab, but that same script did not make the second round of Austin Film Festival. Why is that? I'll never know. It’s hard to tell how each contest chooses their readers, especially the ones in the early rounds when there are thousands and thousands of scripts to muddle through. AFF (at least I know this to be true of this year) sent out queries to all of last year’s 2nd rounders, asking if they wanted to be readers for this year’s first round. That means you’re allegedly being judged by other writers who most likely have zero qualifications to be a contest judge, other than having had their own script succeed in a previous contest. I'm not picking on AFF. I love their event and respect their efforts. It’s simply the reality of what happens in contests far too often because of the high volume of scripts needing to be read. The people who run the contests really do want to help writers. The solution becomes to either lower their expectations of finding a large number of qualified readers or raise the contest entry fee in order to pay the readers what they deserve. There’s no easy answer.
Either way, you cannot control who is reading your script, so don’t beat yourself up when you don’t advance in a contest. Lots of great scripts are in the reject pile along with yours. Instead, control what you can, like choosing your contests wisely. Decide on a budget, dig in to find out the quality of their readers, the contest’s reputation, etc. Don’t just throw money at any contest. Some matter far more than others. Many don’t matter at all.
Another reason a reader or exec could say “no” is fear. What if that reader or assistant recommends a script, champions it to their boss, and the film loses millions of dollars for their company? They’re fired. Pronto.
Bottom-line, your great script is up against getting past fear and inexperience before “FADE IN” is even read, let alone hitting a studio head’s desk.
Should that reality make you turn tail and bolt from the industry? Maybe. But if you hightail it, you definitely won’t break in.
Are you really ready to give up?
Instead of giving up, change your mindset, especially how you look at rejection. Writers often perceive rejection as the ultimate insult. For me, it can be the ultimate blessing.
What? Did she say “blessing”? Oh, yeah. Blessing.
Remember, perception is reality.
Focus on what you can change – yourself and your strategy.
The courage to change what you can.
It’s a blessing when someone is honest and tells you what’s wrong with your story. That gives you a chance to learn new skills, elevate your plot and characters, and make your script shine before you submit it again.
Whenever you get a rejection, change your perception from feeling bitchslapped to asking yourself what you can do to make your writing better, or find screenwriting contests that better fit your projects, whether it be genre contests or ones that are more friendly to character-driven stories.
Contests aren’t the be all and end all. Every exec knows what the good ones are and which ones are rigged or political. Just keep writing and query execs directly.
If an executive who seemed stoked about reading your script passes, it's a gift to you when they walk away. You want someone who is passionate about your story, will champion you, tirelessly fight the fight, and push through any obstacle that comes across his/her path to take your screenplay across the finish line.
Rejections are gifts to writers, freeing you up to find the right partner, not just any partner. Trust me, it’s better to have no one attached to your work than the wrong people attached.
If you get strung along with false promises, it's just like being stuck in a bad relationship. You wouldn't be able to find "the one" if you're shackled to a lackluster partner. Whenever someone passes, I recommend you congratulate yourself on being one step closer to finding your true champion!
The wisdom to know the difference.
A writer’s life could kill you or humble you. Again, your perception is your reality.
Sure, there are days I want to break loose from the Dysfunction Junction that is La La Land. What sane person wouldn’t? But instead, I choose to find little moments of joy and humility in the small victories – contest advancement, script requests, a compliment on my writing from a respected friend, or an introduction to a new person to add to my network.
Whenever you get to celebrate, do so.
Small successes are humbling simply because of the amount of failure you see everyday. Any and every tiny step forward needs to be celebrated… even the rejections.
Maybe once we get on the inside, we can be the force of change on how the industry works. How about starting our own production companies, paying readers what they deserve, championing original stories, and reaching back and lending a hand to a fellow, struggling writer.
If everyone who succeeds pays it forward, that generosity will end up changing the entire industry’s mindset. Imagine that.
Change your perception. It really is that simple.
Don’t believe me? Watch this 80-year-old man who is a model. His story and outlook are amazing.
If you always look at the negative, the positive will be blurred beyond recognition.
There are good people out there – ones who will champion you. You just need to stay in the game long enough to find them. Or you could carve a new path, making your own films, creating a collaborative group of artists to create high-quality content and take over the film festival circuit.
Focus on the positive, in writing and in life, and don’t limit your options by refusing to think outside of the box.
I’m trying to change my perception, starting with Twitter. I used to be incredibly active there, always believing the power of “pimping” others. But I became less active after letting those who spewed negativity and criticism become my reality and perception of the industry and humanity. I recently chose to come back to my neglected Twitter account, renewing my former perception that people are generous and truly want to help one another. But to do that, I had to make adjustments. I mute. I unfollow. I fill my feed with people who are positive and helpful. It’s been pretty cool to embrace hope in humanity again… and Hollywood.
Sure, maybe I’m being too optimistic, but if I continue to believe this industry is full of cutthroat, competitive asses, it’ll only make me not want to be a part of it. Who wants to hang out with jerks? But I do want to hang out with people who pay it forward and give others faith. I want to hang out with talented artists who inspire me. Those are the writers we all should aspire to be. I believe they’re out there. It might take a miracle to find them, but who’s to say the next person you query isn’t the person who will take your script to production?
Which also leads to your perception of what a “miracle” is. For me, every time someone reads my words, it’s a miracle and a small victory to be celebrated. Just you reading this article is a miracle. Every time my writing partner grins at an idea we came up with, I celebrate. Every time I write a sentence or piece of dialogue that gives me goosebumps, I celebrate. Every time I find even 15 minutes to write, I celebrate. Every time I meet someone on this crazy journey who is a genuine and kind person, I celebrate.
Let me offer you one more example of perception versus reality. Here’s writer Bill Lawrence (Scrubs, Spin City, Cougar Town) on Off Camera with Sam Jones talking about how he got his agent. He created the perception of a prolific writer. Genius.
It’s not the final destination that matters. It’s the journey getting there, and your perception of it, that is the true reward.
You can view the journey as impossible, or you can view it as a fabulous adventure. It’s your choice. It’s also your choice what you do once you get on the other side of those velvet ropes. Will you be a person to bring about change? I’m holding out hope you will be. I know that’s my plan.
Stay positive and don’t let this industry beat you down. Above all, don’t give up five minutes before your miracle happens.